NYRB Classics, 2008 (first published 1853; this translation, 1945)
Reviewed by Seana Graham
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much in favor of the Dickensian version of the Christmas season as the next person, but there’s room for other visions at this time of year as well. That’s why I was happy to be introduced to this brief tale by Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter a couple of years ago, which might be said to come from the other end of the spectrum from “A Christmas Carol”’s hustle and bustle.
The novella begins in a leisurely way. After a brief explanation of the customs of Christmastime, the focus falls upon Gschaid, a small village high in the Alps. Gschaid is not easy of access, and really constitutes a world onto itself. However, it has a tenuous connection with a larger market town in the next valley, and even though months can go by before anyone from Gschaid will make the trek to Millsdorf, life being what it is, a Gschaid shoemaker manages to fall in love and marry a Millsdorf dyer’s daughter anyway. Eventually, they have two children, and because these have a foot in both worlds, they are the ones who come to cross over the pass between the villages most frequently.
And so we come to Christmas Eve, and as it is an unusually clement day, the shoemaker and his wife give their children permission to go over and visit their grandmother in the village on the other side of the pass. After all the usual instructions and admonitions, the children set off. They have a delightful day in Millsdorf, but begin the return trek early, just as they were told to. Soon after they head out, though, it begins to snow.
Now that I’ve set it up for you, I’ll leave the rest of their journey for you to discover. But what I will say is that the relationship between older brother Conrad and younger sister Sanna becomes incredibly moving, and that the mountain landscape through which they travel is at once gorgeous and terrifying.
The “rock crystal” of the title is a translation of Bergkristall, which is associated in the Alps with a long, clear colorless crystal which is attached to a host rock. The Greeks are said to have believed that crystals came from regions so cold that they forged substances that couldn’t be unfrozen again. True or not, it’s definitely an apt image when it comes to this novel.
If you are looking for something fast-paced, Rock Crystal is not the book for you. But if you are willing to slow down and enter its stillness, you will find a fine antidote to the busy holiday season. Stifter’s life had a rough beginning and came to a sad end. We are fortunate, then, that in the middle of it, he was able to pen beautiful tales like this one.